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Laurel Touby on How to Start an Internet Media Company
Topic: Laurel Touby on How to Start an Internet Media Company
Laurel Touby: So I came to found mediabistro through kind of a very circuitous route. It all started with my own need for community and mediabistro is a community web site so the first customer was me. Basically, it all started offline as a cocktail party and this was in 1994. I had been in the media for about eight years and I was lonely and I was disconnected because I didn’t have all the tools of technology at the time that we have today. So for example we did not have cell phones. We barely had voice mail. We did have answering machines. There weren’t a lot-- There was-- There were not a lot of technologies to connect people so I started with a friend a little cocktail party to connect with other media professionals and to meet people because I had been so lonely working from home in my bedroom with no daily routine with other coworkers or colleagues, I was writing a column for Glamour magazine, and this cocktail party once a month became my way of actually touching and feeling and talking to real people because most of the time I dealt with my editors and I dealt with other writers on the phone. And so the cocktail party started with ten people in Jules Bistro- at Jules Bistro, a little bistro in the East Village, and people felt the same way. I realized that I had tapped in to a need. I had ready-made customers and they were all my friends. They were the other people- they were the other people in the media who similarly needed to reach out and touch someone once a month and needed to talk shop, to talk about ideas, to talk about issues that were affecting our work lives and to really- and some of us wanted to date of course. So there were lots of needs that were being met at the parties, that some people got dates and some people got some extra freelance work on the side and everyone was happy.
Question:When did you decide to developmediabistro into a business?
Laurel Touby: In the beginning, mediabistro did not start as a business. It just was an offline community but then what I realized was all of these people coming to the parties and by- within a very short amount of time I had hundreds of people on my list and then thousands of people. All of these people kept saying to me, “Laurel, the parties are great but they’re once a month. I’m getting work reference. I’m getting referrals for work. I’m meeting people that I love hanging out with. I’m hearing about opportunities. I’m hearing about other events. I’m hearing about apartments.” So it was kind of like Craig’s List in a party form if you know what I mean and so people would say, “You need a web site so we could all go there all the time, 24/7. We don’t need to go there just once a month.” And that was a very good suggestion that someone made. In fact, I know who made the suggestion.
Question: What were the first steps you took when creating the website?
Laurel Touby: So I’m one of these people who I listen to my customers. Even though they weren’t paying me money and they weren’t formally my customers, they were just my friends, I thought if this turns in to something these could be my customers so I listened when people suggest you should have a web site, you should have an e-mail newsletter, all these things. And I basically took it all in and I talked to a programmer and he was referred by one of the editors and this person put up the first web site in 1996. It was basically a directory on his web site. It was a little nothing of a web site but it got huge traffic immediately. People responded like that. It really did serve a need. And so it started with that first little web site and then a couple of years later I started charging for the job listings. Those became quickly the most popular area, the job listings and the bulletin board, and it also had an events page and it had a resources page, and so it was like Craig’s List basically for a very targeted audience, media professionals only. And in 1999, I started charging money for the web site.
Question: How did you maintain customers when you started charging for the site?
Laurel Touby: Well, the best customers are happy customers. Right? So I never want a customer to pay if they’re not happy so I made that my policy very early on. If you’re not happy, don’t pay me; only pay me if you’re happy. And I would send out e-mails every month to the list of people who posted jobs and I’d say, “Hey, consider this your invoice. Send a hundred-dollar check to this p.o. box if you’re happy with your job listing.” And literally the checks started flooding in and that doesn’t mean everybody paid or everybody always pays but the ones who are happy are happy to pay.
Question: When did you start making a profit?
Laurel Touby: In 1999, I realized that the job board was really the beginning kernels of an actual business. Prior to that, it had been a happy social gathering. It hadn’t been a formalized business but I was developing an audience and now this audience was paying me back in a sense that the job listings were a valuable commodity. So I realized in 1999 that this was what was going on. I started writing my business plan and by 2000 I got funding so I took the- I took my what had been business that I started in my bedroom with two cats and two interns and with funding I could actually get a real office space and start hiring, and that’s when I started hiring and I started with just a handful of people.
Question: What advice would you give to business owners hiring their first employees?
Laurel Touby: When you’re hiring people when you’re first starting out you have different needs at different stages of the business. When you have a very small business the people have to be very flexible and wear a lot of hats. What you can’t do is hire really senior management people who have been in middle management for three years and are making hundreds of thousands of dollars. You have to hire junior-level people who are going to just take the ball and run and get things done and they’re not going to worry a lot about getting permission or systems and processes. They’re just going to get the stuff done and that’s the most important thing. As you evolve in to a bigger company, that’s when you need routines and procedures and meetings and budgets and all kinds of structure, and so that comes later on and I realized that later on when I started getting a very- having a very chaotic workplace because all of these people were just creating chaos. They were getting stuff done but we weren’t having- we weren’t getting a lot of- we weren’t- we needed systems at a certain point.
Question: When did you realize the company needed more structure?
Laurel Touby: The transition to a more structured work environment once your company grows from being a little startup in to let’s say a mid-sized company--I don’t know what that means--a mid-sized, small company, the transition for us was very slow and gradual. As people left the company, the next person we hired always had a little more experience and a little more structure and so we kind of added that accretionally. We didn’t just stop business and then hire a whole new staff. That would be crazy. We just waited until there was attrition and then we developed the internal staff as much as we could and then sometimes we’d have to let a person go because we realized they weren’t fitting the needs of the company now that it was bigger.
Question: Did you make any one mistake that you felt you learned from?
Laurel Touby: The one mistake I would say I learned from-- I know not everyone has this lucky problem but I created a pool of stock early on even when I- the stock was not valuable at all, and in the beginning I didn’t have a lot of money to pay people so I would pay people with stock, but since I didn’t value the stock and since to me it was just a number, it was just millions of stock, I ended up giving a certain chunk of it to a person who did not deserve it. He was a consultant and he went to Harvard and maybe he talked me in to it--I don’t know--but he had a set of deliverables and he did not follow through and so when it came time to sell the company and I did sell the company that stock was worth a lot of money and he never gave me the value for the stock. And I feel like I was kind of hoodwinked and I’m upset about it to this day.
Recorded on: 06/26/2008
mediabistro began as a social and professional network, then grew into an online community and business, says Laurel Touby.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.